Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs

CAMDEN-BORN ARTIST Mickalene Thomas has always used collage and montage to conceptualize her immense painted canvases—glittering portraits and florid interiors encrusted in rhinestones and sequins, each a symphony of pigment and pattern. Muse, her first book of photographs, stars Thomas’s recurrent cast (her mother, lovers, friends, and the artist herself) in a luscious portfolio that is almost classical in its settings and gestures and yet also startlingly unrestrained. Thomas does not digitally alter her photographs. But she does cut them, glue them, and add and subtract found imagery and materials. Portions of the pages in Muse have been strategically removed to create windows from scene to scene. In a section titled “tête-à-tête,” which includes works by artists that were formative for her, Thomas tells Carrie Mae Weems in an interview that photography “taught me to look at my world in a clear way.”

Mickalene Thomas, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010, C-print, 48 × 60".
Mickalene Thomas, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010, C-print, 48 × 60″. © Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy the Artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This volume can be read as a kind of sketchbook, a collection of preparatory studies for her paintings: Iterative clusters of photographs, including clear forerunners to several of her canvases, revisit familiar faces, fabrics, furnishings, and rooms. The work’s fixed repetitions, vitalized by slight variations from one image to the next, seem to dismiss the tired idea of the “moment,” let alone the “decisive” one. In Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010 (above)—a nod to Édouard Manet and perhaps also to Paul Gauguin—the sitters lounge on a rug-strewn floor, dressed in bright florals and heavily made up, surrounded by faux flowers and gold plastic fruit. Each addresses the camera with a calm scrutiny. Turn the page and there they are again, in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires avec jardin d’eau, 2011, but it is a moment later, and their image overlays patches of colored paper and wallpaper and bits of a bucolic riverscape. The woman on the far left has looked away, more closely approximating the pose of Manet’s original. But Thomas finds his composition static. It’s insufficient to capture the charge her subjects hold, the chemistry she has with them, and the complexity of femininity, identity, attraction, and love that is nearly impossible to depict in any medium.